New NRDC Report Argues that Climate Change is Negatively Affecting Workers' Health
The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) just released a report that argues how climate disruption is a growing danger to the health of indoor and outdoor workers. Read what the NRDC and researchers have to say.
- By Amanda Smiley
- Jul 30, 2020
“Workers are often exposed to conditions that the general public can elect to avoid,” said Max Kiefer, previous expert for the CDC-NIOSH.
Climate disruption has effects on humans’ health and wellbeing, but workers in particular industries facing specific elements often fare worse than the average citizen. Because climate change and global warming has major effects on weather patterns, heat indices, the prevalence of toxic substances and a heightened risk of infectious diseases, a worsening of climate disruption means a worsening of worker health.
Indoor and outdoor workers—such as buildings and ground maintenance workers, transportation and materials-moving workers and farm workers, to name a few—suffer direct and indirect effects from climate change.
Many individuals with jobs most effected by climate change are also people of color, and low-wage workers—that are more likely to live in polluted areas and suffer from related health complications such as asthma, cancer and respiratory illnesses.
The NRDC report, titled On the Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America’s Workers, is one of the first to correlate climate disruption with negative effects on worker health as a whole, even though there have been similar, smaller and more isolated studies.
The NRDC states that its research on the dangers that climate change poses to occupational health and safety is a compilation of government databases, media reports and the latest peer-reviewed scientific studies relevant to climate change and workers. The group also talked to labor leaders, occupational health and safety experts and union members about their personal experiences.
Climate change and worker health and safety are two very broad and complex topics. However, here is a summarized look at how the report relates the two and why societies, communities and workers should take a comprehensive, immediate look at how the two relate to one another.
First, the reports reminds readers that “climate change is worsening both day-to-day weather conditions and extreme events such as wildfires, floods and hurricanes.” Weather-related workplace hazards that already harm workers—like extreme heat, toxic air, water pollution, infectious diseases and storm debris—are intensifying across a number of occupations.
Second, the report says that “climate change is economically devastating whole communities.” Disasters and extreme weather disrupt communities, break businesses and cut into people’s work times. Take a look at any major hurricane that has devastated cities or towns, big or small.
Lastly, state and federal agencies are losing some ability to “hold employers accountable for unsafe and unhealthy work practices.” Major labor laws, like the Occupational Safety and Health Act from the 1970s, were drafted before lawmakers really understood the effects and impacts of climate change. Recent rollbacks or legal safeguards and funding cuts have limited the ability for enforcement of safe workplaces, “and the added risks from climate change only exacerbate the problem.”
Here is a comprehensive look at the particular climate change risks the report zones in on, and the sectors those affect the most.
The past century has seen a stark increase in heat indices over the last few decades. Heat waves have gotten longer, more frequent and more intense. Want to learn more about the relationship between heat waves and climate change? Read this article by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Heat is a serious occupational health threat, particularly for workers engaged in physical labor. Exposure to heat can cause a number of illnesses. Particular groups most at risk for heat exposure are roofers, construction workers, farmworkers, firefighters and military personnel.
Even indoor workers—such as janitors and flight attendants—can be severely affected by insufficient ventilation or air-conditioning.
Floods and Hurricanes
Natural disasters—including floods, hurricanes, tsunamis and more—are natural, but are exacerbated by climate change. Want more information on how natural disasters and climate change are related? Read this article from Five Thirty Eight.
Disasters cause extreme physical and mental health issues among workers and community members. For one, emergency response personnel and disaster response workers are at increased risk with more frequent and severe disasters. Storms and floods put all workers, families and people under extreme mental stress.
The report notes that a number of people have found that firefighters, police officers, military personnel and health care professionals engaged in disaster response have an elevated risk of unhealthy coping behaviors—like problem drinking. Disasters can also affect those with pre-existing mental illnesses, have multiple jobs or do not get enough sleep.
Wildfires, like other disasters, are dependent on location, climate and general community prevention. However, heat waves, drier ecosystems and higher wind patterns (among other things) boost the possibility of wildfires in a number of places around the country and world.
From 1985 to 2016, the total area burned annually by wildfires in the United States increased fourfold. Take a look at severe wildfires in California and Australia from this year alone.
Wildfires affects workers like firefighters, but they also affect other workers’ health (impacting respiratory health and mental health, for example).
Increases in wildfires will put more emergency responders and recovery workers in dangerous situations and expose more outdoor and indoor workers to wildfire smoke. Wildland firefighting is a dangerous job, and it requires strenuous work for almost 12 to 16 hours a day for up to 14 consecutive days. Workers in this sector also wear heavy PPE which can restrict their movement and increase the risk of heat illness.
The report said that “from 2009 to 2018, 144 wildland firefighters in the United States died from on-duty illnesses or injuries. Common causes of death among wildland firefighters are in direct exposure to flames, vehicle and aircraft accidents and illnesses such as heatstroke and heart attacks.”
For other workers and general citizens, we must consider particulate smoke. Have you ever looked to the skyline of your city or neighborhood and seen distant, plumes of smoke from wildfires? Even if you are not coughing from smoke, particulate matter in the air from smoke and general pollution affects our lungs and respiratory systems.
Many studies about particular matter have correlated exposure to cancer, asthma and other health issues. Read one EP article about how air quality measurements in cities can affect citizens’ health.
As with disasters like floods and hurricanes, wildfires can cause severe mental strain on individuals—let alone the emergency response personnel fighting the fires. Some of the biggest mental health issues that come from wildfire disasters include PTSD, depression and suicidality.
Droughts and Dust
A heightened frequency and severity of dust-producing droughts is harming many outdoor workers in the Southwest and Great Plains of the U.S. These droughts that are currently “considered 100-year events (i.e., those with a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year) could become more than 20 times as frequent across most of the United States by the period of 2070 to 2099, relative to the period of 1980 to 2009.”
Small dust particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream and cause or exacerbate conditions like asthma and bronchitis. Silica, another component of desert dust, can permanently cause scar lung tissue and cause lung tissue. Dust can also carry harmful bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals and pathogens.
Ticks and Mosquitos
The report notes that climate change is “helping some species of disease-carrying ticks and mosquitos move into new parts of the country, stay active over more of the year and produce more offspring in a given season.” The increase in harmful bugs and pests can affect outdoor workers, and potentially expose them to West Nile virus, Zika virus and Lyme disease.
While there are many more components and studies to evaluate in this conversation about climate change and worker health, the recent report from the National Resource Defense Council compiled its report from over 285 resources.
All workers have the right to a safe and healthy workplace. Many are calling for amendment of old laws, like the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), to expand protection for public sector workers.
Occupational injuries and illnesses can be prevented if workplace hazards are correctly identified and controlled. Employers need to be aware of the hazards that climate change poses to indoor and outdoor workers—but they also need to actively prevent those. Many argue that “the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) should work with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Office of Personnel Management to develop a coordinated, climate-relevant and publicly accessible national surveillance system for occupational health and safety.”
The growing issue of climate change is growing increasingly difficult to tackle, but as individuals, we need to start small (in our own businesses and communities) and aim large (for larger, governmental, global change).
For more information on the report’s findings, recommendations and demands, see the full, 39-page report.